Published: August 16th 2012August 16th 2012
Six months after I started my first “real” job in 2005, my boss calls me into her office and says I need to go to Saudi Arabia in a couple of weeks. As she (the one with actual experience) is a single Muslim woman, she couldn't go which means I would get to hang out in the desert and pretend I knew what I was doing. I have to admit that it was a little unnerving. I had never been to the Middle East, much less the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I was still in the “fake it till you make it” stage of my career (still am, really), and the account at stake was very valuable. But, whatever. I knew I’d come back with stories.
As I got ready to head to the airport for my first leg to Paris and an extended layover, I saw that two Western hotels had just been bombed in Jordan. Only four years after September 11th
, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a coordinated attack with other targets in the region. So, I called my boss, and she told me to get on the flight to France and call her from
there to see what to do next.
I arrived in Paris only to find it in the midst of riots. Protesters had taken to the streets and were flipping cars and burning tires. When I got off the metro in the city, the exits were blockaded by police. Apparently, it was safer to stay underground than venture above. Eventually, we were allowed outside, I had an uneventful night, and after calling back to work, was told to fly to Bahrain the next morning as planned.
When I arrived in Bahrain, I met up with two colleagues who would join me on the project; one American, the other British. We then met our local host, Osama. We were going to go with him across the bridge into Saudi, spend a night in Dammam, and the head up north to the oil fields near Kuwait in a place called Khafji.
The next day, after about 90 minutes of making small talk on the drive through the barren desert in his Ford Explorer, Osama randomly says, “…and that’s why I teach my children to hate the Americans.” GULP. My British colleague sends me a shit-eating smirk. “But”, he continues, “we
teach them to hate the British more.” My return of smirk to said colleague. In my head I’m thinking, “well, at least if something goes down, I’m the second target which buys me more time.” Then, as though it never happened, Osama is quiet. A few awkward moments pass, and then he turns on the CD player. It’s Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby….One More Time”. He begins to smile and sing to himself. Oh, the irony. I take stock of the situation: my driver just said he teaches his kids to hate everyone else in the car, slutty pop is playing on the radio in the world’s most conservative Muslim country, there are camels outside my window, and I’m rocketing through the desert in an American-made SUV towards a city in which foreigners had recently been attacked and killed (at my hotel). Talk about surreal.
The next few days in Khafji were a compilation of many “firsts” for me. As I mentioned, my hotel had been raided before, and there were still bullet holes to prove it. My room had a hollow door with only a push button lock. It also had a patio that opened right onto the Persian Gulf. Most nights I would wake up from the echoing sounds of people screaming at each other in Arabic (I soon learned that if I slept with the BBC on, the soothing sounds of Tony Blair would help mute this racket). When I would arrive at the oilfield check-in gate, I would have to walk through the concrete barricades (that are in place to stop suicide bombers) while two men manning anti-tank artillery kept their guns firmly trained on me. I kept wondering what would happen if one of them suddenly sneezed.
The oilfield was jointly operated by the Saudis and the Japanese which afforded a number of really entertaining cultural mashups. The Japanese stayed in a separate camp, and once a week, they would bring in fresh fish for sushi night. I made friends with one of the operators, and he invited me to be his guest at dinner. Since they rarely had Westerners at their camp, the Japanese wanted to take this opportunity to show off their culture. They assumed I had never seen sushi or used chopsticks and got so excited about “teaching” me. I couldn’t let them down. When I asked if they had any sake though, the mood quickly fell somber. We were in Saudi. No alcohol anywhere. Regardless, this night in the Japanese camp was easily the highlight of the visit.
Finally, it was time to go home, and I found myself at the Bahraini airport with several hours to kill. Someone told me there was a bar in the hotel next door, and by this point, I was more than ready for a drink. As soon as I entered the bar, I heard that familiar Britney Spears song once again. But this time, it was belted out by three scantily clad Filipina girls performing on a raised stage. The bar was a madhouse. Saudi men had crossed the border (still dressed in traditional thawbs
) and were ripping shots, dancing around the bar like it was Spring Break in a Mexican border-town, and generally oogling the girls up on stage. I sat at the bar, and once again, just tried to let it all sink in. After spending a week in the Kingdom across the causeway, where I was worried about accidentally upsetting The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice
(or religious police), this was almost too much to process.
I finished my drink, returned to the airport around midnight, and found out Gulf Air had sold my seat to someone else. No other flights for the night; I would have to stay. The ticket agents began to walk away. Not knowing what to do, I stammered out the first Arabic phrase that came to mind, “I speak a little bit of Arabic
”. The agent heard me, turned around with a smile, and said he might be able to get me on the flight that would leave for Frankfurt in 30 minutes. How convenient. Shortly after, I found myself aboard the plane heading back home. No, I don’t think I came back from Saudi with any souvenirs, but I can safely say that I returned with a lot of great memories.